Some call it art, others call it vandalism. Urban street culture expert Thórdís Claessen documents some of the baddest graffiti in the capital.
Published in the 2007 autumn issue of Iceland Review – IR 45.03. By Sara Blask, photographs by Thórdís Claessen. Excerpted from her book, Icepick, released this spring. Available in all of Reykjavík’s major bookstores, or online at amazon.com.
Unless you’re plugged into a graffiti artist’s world, names like Rusto Fats, NY Thins or Gold Dots probably won’t mean anything to you. And no, they’re not a new generation of bagels or characters in the Italian Mafia. In fact, they’re monikers for certain tips snapped onto cans of spray paint that enable artists to achieve a certain kind of line. Need ultra precision? Use a NY Thins. Wide spray? Rusto Fats.
Say no more, Reykjavík’s community of graffiti artists has some cred as documented in Thórdís Claessen’s recent book Icepick, a collection of more than 1,000 photographs she took of street art in the capital and its suburbs. Interspersed among the photos are Claessen’s own illustrations (she’s a graphic designer by trade) and a two-spread guest appearance by Michael De Feo, a.k.a. Flower Guy, an internationally renowned urban artist from New York. Claessen, 32, who co-owns the urban clothing store Ósóma, doesn’t consider herself a traditional graffiti artist but has been interested in urban culture since she got her first breakdance vinyl record at age eight and picked up her first skateboard at 11.
Unlike most major cities, Reykjavík doesn’t have a designated space or a “wall of fame” where people can paint in peace. In fact, the Reykjavík City Council has openly declared a “war” against graffiti and street art. As part of their strategy, the city has budgeted an estimated ISK 500 million (USD 7.8 million) to eliminate the painted art entirely, but Claessen suggests spending a fragment of that money to build legal walls and a designated wall of fame. The goal? To collaborate with the city. “In general, no one wins in a war,” she says, adding that tolerance has improved over the years. “But there is still a huge problem of non-tolerance at the same time. The city government really hates graffiti and regards it as vandalism but at the same time there are people and shop owners who are having graffiti artists come in more and more to decorate their spaces. It has always been a thin line to cross. It’s vandalism and art at the same time.”
Call it what you prefer—art or vandalism—few can refute the colorful and storied history of graffiti. The first examples date back to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, where inscriptions were often found on the walls of sepulchers or ruins like the Catacombs of Rome and Pompeii. The practice has been evolving ever since, with the first known example of “modern graffiti” located in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. Contemporary graffiti, which is often associated with hiphop culture, began in the mid to late 1960s, making its way to New York City and rapidly becoming a phenomenon. Urban youth started to reclaim sections of their neighborhoods through “tagging” and by 1971 several artists in particular started to gain notoriety in the city, including Taki 183, the subject of a 1971 article in the New York Times entitled “‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals.” The art form peaked in the mid-1970s, with the heaviest graffiti “bombing” in the States taking place during this time.
In recent years graffiti has become increasingly recognized as a more acceptable art form with museums and galleries around the world showcasing some of the best of the best, including the Brooklyn Museum and even the Reykjavík Art Museum at Kjarvalsstadir, where a 16-square-meter mural created by Claessen—a graphic blend of photos from Icepick and personal drawings—was exhibited in the same room as work from design giants 66ºNorth and Nikita. Banksy, a renowned graffiti artist from the UK, has assumed cult status among wide circles in the art world, drawing a bank-breaking USD 576,000 at an auction this April for his piece, “Space Girl & Bird.” A month later he won the Greatest Briton in the Arts award, which he predictably didn’t show up to collect so he could maintain his notoriously anonymous status.
Though Banksy hasn’t tagged anything in Iceland yet, more and more locals are starting to leave their mark. Ironically, the city in fact supports the art form by providing some artists with cans to tag various city walls during events like the annual Menningarnótt, Iceland’s culture night, and last year’s Winter Lights Festival.
Claessen has never tagged herself (well, okay, once she tried to paint with a spray can, which she says was “total crap”) although she admits she has “been out there with my hood over my head in the nighttime pasting up stuff illegally.” By pasting she means papering sheep. Yes, sheep made of paper. A three-meter-high sheep glued on one wall and a sheep dressed in a leather jacket while playing a guitar on another wall. And that’s only the beginning of the sheep theme, which is constantly evolving, says Claessen. “It’s just paper, it’s not really a big deal. Plus it rains a lot so it all blows away in a few days.”